Over the course of three albums before this one Jack McNeill and Charlie Heys have carved out a unique place in the current folk scene. Steadily, picking up acclaim that has built on their finalist nomination in the BBC’s Young Folk Awards, the duo have been praised for their originality. Like so many other young players they are able to call on considerable instrumental skills and Jack also has a distinctive and utterly captivating husk of a voice, but bucking the trend, McNeill & Heys have chosen to write their own songs. Over the course of their albums, it’s fair to say Jack and Charlie have grown to fully trust their instincts and make a gradual, gentle drift towards the left field. Playing with song structure, form, tempo, arrangements and lyrical themes, but all realised with a grace and elegance, it makes their new album, Any Other Morning, a work of profound and mysterious beauty.
If ever an album deserved its cover then this is one for sure. It’s one of those photographs that is probably wrong in all sorts of ways, but the two tiny figures silhouetted on the horizon, under a lowering sky with just a hint of brightness in the distance, creates an image full of intriguing possibility. Perhaps most important is the wide, flat horizon or perhaps it’s that combined with the drama and colour of the clouds. It almost dares to suggest that we are but tiny pinpricks under the vastness of the canopy above us and asks us to think about the balance of the natural world, perhaps look anew and a little deeper into our surroundings. The songs of Any Other Morning offer clues and suggestions of how we might start to do that, or at least creates a musical language to express the wonders that are there for us to find.
As two students of the Birmingham Conservatoire, it might surprise you to know that both have studied classical music. But then the classical world has oft drawn on folkish themes and melodies, as well as looking to the natural world, while perhaps aiming to cast nature’s bounty into the most dramatic musical likeness. Whilst there’s certainly drama to be had here, it isn’t framed in symphonic crescendos, the thunder of kettle drums or the heavy sweep of massed violins, instead there’s a quiet, yet passionate poetic intensity, which is utterly spellbinding.
By whatever means, Jack and Charlie have clearly come to folk song as the foundations of their sound. And even as they have started to push at the boundaries of the limits that suggests, they still have the recognisable interplay between Charlie’s exquisite fiddle lines and Jack’s deft guitar picking. It’s a pleasing and organic recipe that like a particularly fine sour-dough, has a unique alchemy at its heart and the results can be pulled, manipulated and moulded at will.
I’m sure the Folk Award helped but Paul and Linda Adams at Fellside Records clearly fell for their folk credentials and released the first three albums. The label has an enviable reputation for picking up genuinely exciting talent and Paul, who also has a passion for jazz, is something of an obsessive about sound and recording technique. I can only suggest that it has served Jack and Charlie well as the recording here is absolutely top drawer. This, however, is recorded and produced by Calum Malcolm, a name that keeps cropping up and is starting to gain an almost mythical status in my reviews, for the quality of the projects he has worked on and the outstanding results achieved.
For this release they have turned both to a Pledge Music campaign and also to fellow Conservatoire alumni, The Old Dance School, whose Transition label provides the platform for the CD release. It also explains the striking cover although it’s Robin Beatty following his fathers shutter finger, who took the photo. The Old Dance School have always boasted great artwork and that obviously sets the standard for other acts signed to the label. It shouldn’t go unsaid, however, that Jack has also recently spoken of his great gratitude to Paul and Linda, who get thanks in the credits, but he and Charlie deemed Any Other Morning the right time to be trying to grasp their own destiny.
A clear sign of that is that this record is just the two of them instrumentally and vocally, whereas before they’ve brought in guests to flesh out the sound, this time things are distilled down to Jack and Charlie. It’s also worth noting that whereas they have always allowed a song to breathe, without clock watching, Any Other Morning is actually their most concise album so far, despite the expansive 10 minutes plus of the title track. As always, quality counts and in that respect the album wins hands down.
Charlie’s voice is used sparingly to make its point in harmony, while her fiddle is simply above and beyond. She’s also credited with banjo, harmonium and glockenspiel, which are again used to make a point rather than fill out the sound. Jack adds clarinet and also the wonderful bass clarinet, with its unique, woody, deep drone, as further instrumental finesse.
Like all of the best records it doesn’t give you everything in one sitting and if the cover is suggestive, the opening track is a gorgeous enigma. Carefully layered fiddle (or perhaps that should be violin!?) lines set up the repeated mantra of, “ If all you have to say as you wake is that you never noticed that we’d ever slipped away.” The intricately bowed tune builds to a positively playful conclusion, only for Jack to deliver the line, “The path gets lost covered by long grass,” which announces the start of What We Remember and simultaneously deepens the sense of mystery further.
There are signposts, however, and even if our progress means we have forgotten the track, we might just, “Find it in a book and look across the old face.” There’s work to be done and it will take tea and cake to fuel a strategy to get the old stories and the old ways in line, so that we perhaps have the chance to learn from their wisdom. The song also raises the first of several ornithological motifs in the Curlew, but also stakes a claim for something far more fundamental, with the sideswipe of a drinking session also thrown into the cauldron. I’m not suggesting any “Eye of bat and toe of frog,” but there is natural magic in this vision none the less laced with a simmering tension between the ideal and the reality.
In some ways this album works as a suite or a symphony, with different movements, it’s just that the poetry lingers longest. Perhaps significantly the first four tracks account for 25 minutes and the second four for only 15, although it’s only when you look that you notice. A Hymn To The Wolves and the title track continue in the image of What We Remember. The first concludes with, “Time takes care of everything,” which may yet be the biggest fundamental truth or the biggest lie of all. Any Other Morning offers, “Find me down where the wild creatures go, relearn all those things we used to know,” which may yet be the swansong of our species.
The second half offers three glorious tunes in Swift, Jig For Joyce and the concluding Cloud Inversion, which maybe explains the cover. But also the song Navigator, that for all its earthly toil, suggest something else is afoot and as despite the claggy clay, the way and the truth may yet be found, perhaps beyond the clouds, or even within the very morass at your feet or the puzzles contained herein.
As a final summary, it’s worth saying that the albums I like the most are usually the ones that are hardest to write about. This week there have already been three and I can’t pretend to have done any of them justice. Only you will do that with your ears. Music never stands still and why should it? Why should you or I either? In fact, grab a piece of Any Other Morning and make it you’re here and now, your tomorrow and your yesterday, but do so today.
Review by: Simon Holland
A Hymn to the Wolves
What We Remember
30/05 – Worth Matravas at The Square and Compass
13/06 – Troutbeck, Cumbria at Troutbeck Village Shop and Tearoom
13/06 – Ambleside, Cumbria at Zeffirellis
14/06 – Sherborne Castle, Dorset at Behind The Castle Music Festival
16/07 – Up In The Gallery, Bath
Digital Release: 02 June 2014
Physical Release: 09 Jun 2014